The Pew Charitable Trust’s recent report Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations documents what appears to be the end of the dream. There is little, and decreasing, intergenerational mobility in this country. The report finds that “Americans raised at the bottom and top of the family income ladder are likely to remain there as adults” and an astonishing two-thirds of those raised at the top and bottom of the wealth distribution remain in those positions as adults.
America is not supposed to have these rigid multi-generational class boundaries and it is this part of the report that has received the most media attention.
The report also – somewhat briefly – attends to the issue of race and class. It finds that “Over half of blacks (53 percent) raised in the bottom of the family income ladder remain stuck in the bottom as adults . . . Half of blacks (56 percent) raised in the middle of the family income ladder fall to the bottom . . .” This situation is exacerbated by the finding that while only 11% of White families have incomes in the bottom fifth of the distribution, 65% of Black families can be found there and 83% are in the bottom two fifths of the national income distribution (as compared to 32% of White families).
At the other end of the scale, only 2% of Black families make it into the highest 20%, as compared to 23% of White families. In a technical note, the report observes that there are too few Black families in the top two income and wealth quintiles to report estimates. That is, the number of Black families in the income and wealth quintiles including nearly half of White families is statistically insignificant.
To put this another way, over 80% of Black families are poor or near-poor while of the approximately 53 million people in the top 20%, at least 50 million are White and this disproportionality increases as we approach closer to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. We can assume that if a family is rich, it is White: rich Black families are “too few to report estimates.” We can as readily assume that if a family is Black, it is most likely poor. Moveover, perhaps two-thirds, of the poorest 20% of Americans are either Black or Hispanic.
An implicit message of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ report is that this system of what is in effect a race-based class structure is going to stay that way.
The report does deliver what at first sight appears to be some good news. A college degree is a passport out of the class into which an American is born. “College graduates are more upwardly mobile from the bottom and less likely to fall from the top and middle.” While half of non-college-graduate adults whose parental income was in the bottom quintile remained there, only 10% of those with college degrees did so. However, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS) while 30% of White people 25 years old and over are college graduates, only 20% of Black people 25 years old and over are college graduates. Moreover, Professor Betty Pettit of the University of Washington has recently argued that that because it does not include people in prison or jail, the CPS seriously overestimates the educational attainment of the Black population. If we apply her corrections to the CPS estimates, it is likely that 15% or fewer of the Black adult population are college graduates. This severely affects the overall effect of college degrees on income mobility for Black Americans, particularly as impoverished Americans are usually to be found in high poverty neighborhoods with underfunded and ineffective schools, limiting opportunities for higher educational attainment.
The Pew report tells us that class lines in America are not only becoming more severe, as is now widely recognized, but that they are becoming more rigid, with what intergenerational mobility there is dependent on educational attainment. A further analysis of the data shows that America’s class divides are increasingly race-based and that the correlation between family income and educational opportunity is increasingly locking Black families in multi-generational poverty.